News from Ceylon: 1942

The letter from Ceylon

TEXT AND PHOTOS BY AMIT PALLATH
Thrissur, Kerala, India

The plantations in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) were cultivated by the British using Indian hands.
 During the early 20th century, employment opportunities were abundant for south Indians. They were instrumental in the establishment of the tea, rubber, coffee and coconut
 plantations in the 
island nation. 

My grandfather, or achachan, as he is fondly referred to by the family in Malayalam, joined this influx of migrant workers in his early twenties. He 
stayed and worked in Ceylon for almost 7-8 years sending money back home to support his family. This letter, written on 28 October, 1942 details him asking his relatives in Thrissur, Kerala about the happenings and whereabouts of his 
brethren. At that time, letters took over a week to reach his hometown and communication 
was nowhere as frequent as in today’s day and age.

My nani (maternal grandmother) passed away recently and the entire family visited our native village in Thrissur for the final rites. It was a
 rare occasion when all of us were present. My chechi-amma (mother’s sister) had safely preserved our family’s photographs for all these years and she showed them to us then. Wanting to make digital copies of them, I was rummaging through the pile and chanced upon this old letter. The four sheets
 of paper were safely preserved in a transparent plastic folder.
 The letter, written before achachan was married, speaks mainly of family matters and describes his life in erstwhile Ceylon. It is addressed to my grandfather’s brother-in- law’s elder brother who was an authority in the town 
back home and a caretaker of the family.

The letter also highlights the struggles and hardship felt during the British rule. “Food is rationed and I receive 3 naazhi a week.” Naazhi is the smallest of the measuring vessels associated with the rice-paddy system  in Kerala. 1 Naazhi  is around 200 grams. He has also asked whether his brother has received the 55 rupiah money order he had sent to buy some land back home. Achachan was surviving on a meagre salary of 150 rupiah for 5 months and was requesting his elders to not send any new kids to work there. He specifically mentions “don’t send his relative Govindankutty as he himself  is surviving on only one meal a day”. The header contains his name, V.M. Damodaran and his contact address, 1/64 Captain’s Garden, Colombo. It also has ‘Vandematharam’ printed on it.

Around the time when Nehru was heralding an independent India with his Tryst with Destiny speech, my achachan was awaiting the return of his elder brother from Kuwait. It was very
 common for the male members in the family to go abroad or to other states to earn a livelihood.
 The two brothers would be meeting after a long time. Unfortunately, the ship from Iraq got delayed. As the final call for my grandfather’s ship to Ceylon was being announced, he decided against joining his 
colleagues. He would rather have the warm embrace of his brother. This led to him quitting his
 job at the plantation and staying back in Kerala.

Achachan brought up a family of nine children which included six daughters. The women of the family remember him as a person quite ahead of his time, as my grandfather was very insistent on getting
 his daughters the best education and making them financially independent. I am referring to 
the 1950s here when the social climate wasn’t exactly conducive to his thought process.
 But thankfully, his strong work ethic passed on to his progeny and ensured they became doctor, engineers and
 teachers.

Achachan with his children at his youngest son's wedding in 1996.
Achachan with his children at his youngest son’s wedding in 1996.

An atheist and a Gandhian, who had his own set of morals and way of life, achachan wholeheartedly accepted an inter-faith marriage in his family. He paved the way for the future
 generations and was always the bulwark of the family. Even at the ripe old age of 87, I remember him 
tending to his paramb (field) and keeping things in order. Before the first rays of the sun hit the 
field or the morning rooster welcomes the day, he would be on his feet carrying his kaikottu 
(spade) to get to work. This is how he started his day, by offering prayers to the soil which 
gave him his livelihood. His God resided in his paramb.

When I came across the letter it felt like I was holding a piece of history. A fragment from a bygone era, a time before any of the living members of 
my family were even born. My cousins and I have made a concerted effort to make a digital copy of all the old photographs as I don’t
 want them to be lost with the older generation. I want such pieces of history to get recorded somewhere and I hope this is just the beginning.

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